Jeff Lipsky struggles to find a tricky balance in “Twelve Thirty,” a supremely dense coming-of-age drama steeped in weighty blather at the expense of emotional validity. Physically graphic and verbally frank, Lipsky’s talky portrait follows a virginal twenty-two year-old and the promiscuous family that draws him into their twisted dynamic. Almost entirely composed of exposition, Lipsky’s screenplay is heavy with astute monologues and hip to life experience. But it sports a disconnect between the nakedness of the characters — both literally and in the ways they each lay bare their intimate secrets — and the distance from them created by Lipsky’s theatrical dialogue, which sounds much wiser than the people intended to speak it.
The story begins with a tense encounter between the young man, tellingly named Jeff (Jonathan Groff) and former high school acquaintance Mel (Portia Reiners), in the restaurant where they both work. Mutual nostalgia leads to an abrupt sexual encounter in Mel’s vacant sister’s room, followed by Jeff’s feeling of rejection when Mel rebuffs his attempt to repeat the encounter a day later. Their relationship never had much heat in the first place, but after a series of terse exchanges, it grows frigid.
At first, Lipsky’s approach suggests a middling, downbeat take on “Before Sunrise,” but then he broadens his focus by introducing the other colorful members of Mel’s family. Her sister Maura (Mamie Gummer), as virginal as Jeff in his early scenes, eventually meets Jeff at a party, where he awkwardly deflowers her in the closet. The girls’ domineering mother, Vivien (Karen Young), lazily sleeps with her bisexual ex-husband, underlining her fault in the sexual confusion her daughters face. At its midpoint, “Twelve Thirty” rips a page from “The Graduate,” with Jeff falling prey to the middle-aged seductress when her daughters aren’t home.
The dysfunctional ingredients that lead Jeff to bed one member of the household after another might work in a dark comedy or some far more tragic opus, but the cold tone of the proceedings never locks into a consistent groove. When Vivien’s ex, Martin (Reed Birney), confronts Jeff in front of the entire family, the sudden eruption of anger briefly energizes their chemistry. But it’s too late too late: “You’re a recipe for utter mediocrity,” Martin tells Jeff, a verdict equally applicable to Lipsky’s screenplay, despite his noble intentions of foregrounding profound conversation with a nod to European arthouse classics.
“Twelve Thirty” owes a debt to the engine of chatter driving Eric Rohmer’s best works, much like Lipsky’s superior “Flannel Pajamas” did to Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage”—but in his latest outing, Lipsky can’t find a modern hook for his predominantly young protagonists (“I wish I could tell you something dramatic,” an older character says to Jeff, although he could use some better lines himself.) The only authenticity of the performances comes from the cast’s willingness to strip down, leading to some of the most uneasy sex scenes this side of Joe Swanberg’s “Nights and Weekends.” But the liberating sexual candor is undone by dramatic impotence.
criticWIRE grade: C+